“If Beale Street Could Talk”

James Baldwin’s 1974 novel comes to the screen with Barry Jenkins of “ Moonlight” (reviewed Nov.18th, 2016) writing and directing. I was disappointed in the absence of present day connection. Thirty-five years of stagnant progress in Black male incarceration rates is socially catastrophic. Why not add some current names to those languishing for trials and falling back on plea bargains? Jenkins would probably say there were too many. A love story that relies only on our empathy infuriates more than enlightens. I wanted to scream “Beale Street can talk…let’s hear it!”

There is anger, but it is just touched in the film. Much of the anger comes between two Black families, the Rivers and the Hunts. Our narrator Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) shares her love story. It is slow-going. There are walks in Washington Park, flashbacks to toddler bathtub play, transfixed gazes, and hours of lovers’ ennui. An almost trance-like first sexual encounter leaves Tish pregnant. The father,Fonnie Hunt (Stephen James) is falsely accused of a violent rape and jailed. Tish is left to relay her plight and seek help for Fonnie.

While her family is the epitome of love and acceptance, Fonnie’s mother and sisters are haters of the first order. Fonnie’s mother, played Bible-straight-haughty by Aunjanue Ellis, tears into Tish, “ I always knew you‘d be the destruction of my son.” She goes on to hope that the baby shrivels in Tish’s womb. Here, she is forcibly slapped in the face by her husband.

In constrast, Tish’s mother radiates a joyful faith. ”Get the good glasses…We are drinking to new life.” easily morphs into “Love is what brought you here. You trusted it then, trust it now.”

Regina King plays Tish’s wise mother. She has a lovely scene were she plays mid-wife to Tish’s water birth. She watches Tish and her grandson bond by giving them just enough space. King has strong emotions to display. I loved the scene were she fidgets with a wig readying herself to meet a Puerto Rican go-between on Fonnie’s behalf. Her lines spoken to the runaway rape victim are desperate: “ Do you think I came here to make you suffer?” and King delivers before falling to anquish. Likewise tender moments are garnered by Tish’s father, Joseph, (Coleman Domingo)as he cradles his pregnant daughter, makes her tea, and places his strong hands over her swollen stomach.

Director Jenkins likes the close-up, and a soft and hazy pallet. One of my favorite scenes has Fonnie dreaming of his sculpture work, hammering away in creative splendor, and missing his whetting stone and Tish in his arms. The fact that his innocence is not a defense rankles. Looking at someone you love through a prison screen glass is made soul-wrenching. While trial dates are postponed, Fonnie yells and then apologizes to Tish. “Do you know what is happening to me in here?” translates easily enough to the same jailhouse sexual abuse Fonnie’s friend Daniel alludes to.

The use of music as integral to life produces a memorable score. Hopelessness is never apparent. A “can do attitude” has both grandpas fencing garments. Fonnie works as a short-order cook and in a tool shop. Tish tries her luck at the perfume counter. Friends help. A bodega proprietress stands up to a rascist policeman in Fonnie’s defense, a restaurant manager gives Fonnie and Tish a white-tablecloth meal and the dance floor, and my favorite kind-person segment is when Levi shows the couple an available loft and helps Fonnie, for Tish’s benefit, move in imaginary appliances.

Harsh lives viewed through romance has me thinking that Jenkins, like Levi, ”loves people who love each other.” I was just up for a little more than doe-eyes and a series of slow, massaging scenes trying to sooth the effects of a rascist country. Love conquering all should not be race exclusive.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

In the words of James Baldwin (1924-1987) and in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, viewers of the documentary ” I Am Not Your Negro”, (2017) see in a profound glimpse into the racial divide in the United States of America. In just under ninety- fIve minutes, archival film reels and photos are  interspersed with old movie clips to illustrate a history one can not be proud of, let alone laud. “America is not the home of the free, and only sporadically the home of the brave”, Baldwin tells us.

From an ex-patriot’s vantage point, Baldwin writes forcefully of three friends and Civil Rights’ icons: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, who were murdered in the 1960’s all under the age of forty.

Beginning with Dick Cavatt’s television interview and ending with the same, Haitian director Raoul Peck lets Baldwin personalize these deaths and draw a warning for our country. It is a country the self-exiled Baldwin tells us that he never felt homesick for.

His journey back is one of “paying his dues” and seeing his family whom he did miss. We learn of Baldwin’s grade school teacher and how she enriched his education. How he did not hate white people then. He relays how his world was later debased by a culture that only had white heroes, Step ‘n Fetch It, and fear-filled black janitors. Baldwin, who would have  been 93 this year, has a perspective that brutally portrays and labels The Civil Rights Movement as the “latest slave rebellion.”

His unfinished manuscript called “Remember This House” is the bones of this documentary, part social commentary and part memoir and recollections of three personal friends. As a side note, McGraw -Hill sued the Baldwin Estate to recover the 200,000  dollar advance they gave him. Peck, a former Haitian Minister of Culture, honors Baldwin with this film and credits him with writing it.

Old news becomes a personal journey to elicit remorse from white Americans who do not seem to understand that “we are our history”. We carry it with us always, and “white is a metaphor for power”.

One of the most arresting pictorial arguments comes from a clip of a 1961 Doris Day film that I remember seeing. She sings “shall I be naughty or nice..shall I surrender”. The next frames show real lynched  men swinging from trees. The disparity in feeling safe with taking risks has never looked sillier.

One of the factoids I learned from this film is that Lorraine Hansberry, author of one of my favorite plays of all time, ” A Raisin In The Sun”, walked out of a discussion with Bobby Kennedy and James  Baldwin. Baldwin relays that, “we heard the thunder!”. There are enough revelations like the NAACP’s early errors in making class distinctions to keep even the most seasoned students of the racial divide learning.

Robert Kennedy does not fare well in this documentary. Though we see him in Indianapolis calming the crowd after announcing the death of MLK, we also see him in 1965 at 38 telling Blacks that maybe in forty years a black man may even become president. While he is not portrayed as a villain, it is made clear that Baldwin and Hansberry understand white politicians more than he understands Black America. Hansberry’ s point being that we have been here 400 years , and he tells us in 1965 that maybe in forty more we will see parity. What kind of dream is this?!

Baldwin writes that ” Whites don’t want to believe that the Birmingham massacre is the norm”. The screen shows Birmingham on Mars to make the point. Equally Creative is the interplay of music like ” Stormy Weather”, gospel and blues. The original score by Alexei Aigui is extremely effective.

Film stars and film clips serve as a mesh to capture our culture. There are two levels of experience shown. An example is a group of picnicking whites and then a parade of black faces staring one by one from the screen. How white institutions like Chase Manhattan Bank treat Blacks is the real issue. There is no picnicking for them.

Wince at the clip of Trump saying , “Sorry, get used to it.” Acknowledge the evils of “vested interests” and ” profiteers”. Safety and profit loom over passion and care in ending racism. While Baldwin has been called ” a soul on fire”, here we see the smoldering embers. He makes legend out of massacre the same way our culture has done with Native Americans. Peck, who took ten years making this documentary, will have many choosing to reread “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (1953) and “Evidence Of Things Not Seen” ( 1985). This documentary warrants multiple viewings. It is that full and that  important. This Sunday evening, Raoul Peck should be taking home an Oscar.